Danielle McGuire is an associate professor of History at Wayne State University. She is the award-winning author of At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance – a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. She is currently working on a book about the Algiers Motel murders in Detroit in 1967 and teaches courses on African American history and the Civil Rights Movement. She is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.
For weeks critics of the film Selma have focused on its historical accuracy, arguing especially that the director, Ava DuVernay, misrepresented the relationship between President Lyndon B. Johnson (sharply portrayed by Tom Wilkinson) and Martin Luther King Jr. (brilliantly rendered by David Oyelowo) and Johnson’s support for African American voting rights. By portraying Johnson as a reluctant ally skeptical about the timing of the voting rights confrontation who was forced to take a stand—rather than a flawed, but eager partner who used his political power to rally Congressional support for a federal Voting Rights Act—DuVernay succeeds in creating a film that, as she put it, is devoid of a “white savior.” In this respect Selma defies typical Hollywood excursions into the past, particularly those that take up American racism and racial violence. Fact and fiction are often intertwined in most historical dramatizations, and Selma is no exception. However, there is much DuVernay gets right and Selma can be seen as both a corrective to popular portrayals of King and the movement he is still too often the sole representative of, and as an entrée to teaching more about the long struggle for black dignity and humanity in the United States.
The best parts of Selma make visible and visceral that which even the most careful scholarly research cannot always capture. These small, intimate moments, which DuVernay mastered and cinematographer Bradford Young captured, take us behind W. E. B. Du Bois’s veil and into the inner lives of African Americans living through American apartheid. Selma combines the art and science of history and film by captivating the audience with intimate, ardent storytelling that has the power to change the way people understand the past and perhaps even think about the present.
Take DuVernay’s Martin Luther King Jr., for example. In a series of scenes, David Oyelowo brings to life a complicated, tender, and politically shrewd King who defies popular depictions as an iconic dreamer. Here is King, the Nobel laureate, whose soaring oratory and sharp political skills grabbed the attention of ordinary people and world leaders and gave him a regular perch in the Oval Office. In one scene, a weary King tucks his children into bed, shares household duties and intimate moments with Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), and delays a return trip to Selma to mitigate marital tensions after he admits to adultery. These delicate moments detail the steep costs King as father and husband paid for his devotion to civil rights. In other scenes, King is part of an astute and joyful brotherhood of ministers and organizers like Ralph Abernathy (Coleman Domingo), James Orange (Omar Dorsey), Andrew Young (Andre Holland), Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), and C.T. Vivian (Corey Reynolds), who lean on one another for emotional and spiritual support. Trading jokes and teasing one another as the ministers pass plates of home-cooked food in Miss Jackson’s (Niecy Nash) kitchen reminds viewers that King did not work alone, that humor and big-hearted fellowship buoyed them at critical moments, and that local people—most often women—took on the burdens of nurturing, nourishing, and sustaining movement activists. Add these scenes to those where King delivers sharp-tongued denouncements of the social, political, and economic effects of white supremacy and those who practice it, and show him negotiating and arguing with other activists, especially James Foreman and John Lewis (Trai Byers and Stephan James) about the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) strategy and tactics and King becomes significantly more more complicated, more radical, more human and, I think, more like someone to emulate rather than simply idolize. In giving viewers a multidimensional King, DuVernay teaches a new generation about how important he and his ideas were (and are) to America and the world.
While Selma gives audiences a new, more historically accurate King, it also introduces viewers to a raft of movement activists and supporters who get little to no play in popular portrayals of the freedom struggle. In many of these introductions, viewers bear witness to the grace and human dignity of African Americans suffering through the horrific terror and everyday insults that white people inflicted upon them during the Jim Crow era.
We meet the grassroots warrior, Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), as she waits on a wooden bench in an empty, marble-floored hall for the county registrar (portayed by Clay Chappell) to call her name. The weariness and trepidation with which Cooper walks to the counter is symbolic of the slow, patient, often unrewarding “spadework” of organizing, and signals that she has been here before. She knows that each attempt to register to vote is as humiliating as it is dangerous and will likely end in failure. But there she is. Again. The registrar’s gleeful enmity toward Cooper captures the quotidian terror of everyday encounters with white people during this era. “I wonder what old Dunn will say,” the registrar sneers, “when I tell him one of his gals is down here stirrin’ a fuss.” It is an implicit threat and a gendered and raced smear. To be sure, Annie Lee Cooper is nobody’s “gal,” but the scene reminds us that white men in the Jim Crow South believed black women and their bodies belonged to them and that they could use and abuse them with impunity.
If Cooper’s exchange with the county registrar hints at the countless small ways whites denied black people’s humanity, the preceding scene makes it explicit. DuVernay transports viewers to the golden, sun-saturated stairwell of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, as a group of primly dressed children descend to the basement. Young’s cinematography here is devastating. The camera zooms in on a delicate, white-gloved finger tracing a bannister down the steps, as the girls talk about baptism. The sudden boom of dynamite shook me out of my seat even though I knew it was coming. In the slow-motion blast of debris, viewers catch a glimpse of a shiny patent leather shoe and the lacy crinoline of a girl’s dress.
The dynamite murder of black children is another kind of baptism; the stark horror of the blast forces viewers to reckon with the impact of white supremacy—the terror it inflicted and the lives it claimed. The emotional power of this moment in the film is only matched by the heart-wrenching scene in which the 84-year-old Cager Lee, hauntingly portrayed by Harry Sanders, has to identify the body of his grandson, Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was murdered by police on February 26, 1965 in Marion, Alabama. With deep sorrow and smoldering anger, trapped in the sterile corridor of the morgue, Lee proudly accepts King’s condolences and together they mourn the tragic loss of black life. DuVernay makes us linger there in the morgue forcing us to bear witness to black grief and to be honest about America’s history of violent indifference to black humanity. Indeed, the savage police murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson in Selma is the most poignant reminder that, as William Faulkner put it, “the past is never dead… It isn’t even past.”
In these small, intimate moments behind the veil, and in many others throughout Selma, viewers get a more inclusive, richer history of the freedom campaign and what it was up against. We see black women like Diane Nash (Tess Thompson), Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Touissant), Annie Lee Cooper (Winfrey), and Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) at the center of the struggle leading, resisting, organizing, and supporting. And we see the faces of many footsoldiers and grassroots activists who did the daily work necessary to sustain the struggle. Even Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) is given more depth and dimension than is typical for Hollywood. Taken together, these scenes serve as a corrective to most popular portrayals of the civil rights movement and remind viewers that it wasn’t just King who made it possible.
Selma may not get all the “facts” of history right. But this beautiful and courageous film invites us to study the past and learn from it so that we have the tools and the strength to fight for human dignity and equal justice today.